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An American Doctor in Fukushima

March 28, 2011

There was a time when patients in Japan were not told if they had cancer. This is foreign to my training, but from medical school I still remember patients who did not seek care until it was too late, perhaps because of a word they did not want to hear.

Anthony R. Nollet, a.k.a. Uncle Tony, was among the US Marines who served in Japan after World War II. His voice is now silent, but Tony's children still speak of the respect and love their father developed for a people whose spirit could not be defeated by nuclear weapons or an Instrument of Surrender.

Anthony, the military aviator, became Tony, a civilian engineer in charge of a recycling plant in New York State. The plant had an explosion and fire. This was a manageable technical challenge, but how should it be explained? Anthony-Tony, military-civilian, American-Japanese… my uncle contemplated various communication styles, and went to the city's mayor for advice. The mayor told Tony to inform the media right away and invite them to the plant for a look around. The explosion and fire ended up on page 3 of the local newspaper. Citizens were properly informed without being alarmed.

Events at a nuclear plant can be rather more serious than events at a recycling plant. "Fukushima Daiichi" has been on the front page of newspapers around the world.

Young Japanese doctors who distinguish themselves in a specialty might be directed by senior faculty to spend a year or more overseas. American medicine is certainly richer for this. Japanese colleagues who attend to my medical needs are versed in many ways of thinking. They generally know what to say, and how to say it. I trust them. Like Uncle Tony, they want to act with due consideration toward the public; all of us are, potentially, patients. Unlike Uncle Tony, however, my colleagues are not in charge of the plant.